Honoring Two Intellectual Giants of the 20th Century

Before 2018 concludes, we should remember two men born a century ago this year who profoundly shaped public discourse in the twentieth century: Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. Dec. 11, 1918) and Russell Kirk (b. Oct. 19, 1918). Solzhenitsyn, who lived into the new millennium (he died at age 89 in 2008), was both a Nobel laureate in literature and probably the leading dissident in the old Soviet Union whose influence played no small part in the ultimate collapse of the communist behemoth and the end of the Cold War. He was a great testament to how moral force can shape the course of political and social events even against overwhelming odds. Kirk was the leading figure in the post-World War II intellectual conservative revival, implanting traditionalist conservatism as a major force in American public discourse and ultimately helping to pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan.

Solzhenitsyn’s odyssey from a flirtation with communism in his youth to one of its most ardent, unrelenting critics took place during his imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp for his criticism of Josef Stalin in a private letter he wrote from the front near the end of World War II. Sent to internal exile after his imprisonment, he almost died of cancer. These experiences were the basis of three of his best-known books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward. The Soviet leadership allowed One Day to be published—the only one of his works published in the USSR, though others circulated underground—as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization effort. Relating one day of the main character’s life in a Stalin-era labor camp, it turned out to be a decision that the top Soviet honchoes regretted because it became apparent that circulating the truth about the realities of the regime could begin to cause it to splinter. What followed were years of harassment, efforts to discredit him, and even an assassination attempt by the KGB.

In the meantime he and his work were becoming increasingly well known in the West, reaching a culmination with his being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970. This may have dissuaded the Soviet authorities from putting him back in prison. Instead, they forced him into exile, which for him—as a lover of his Russian homeland—may have been almost as bad. (In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union he returned to Russia for the last decade and a half of his life.) In the late 1960s, he published his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume history of the Soviet prison camp system that he wrote over the course of nine years. As he wrote, finished parts were kept with friends in different locations so that the KGB could not seize the entire manuscript all at once. The finished manuscript was then smuggled to the West on microfilm for publication.

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After his exile, Solzhenitsyn, his wife, and sons settled in Vermont where he lived until after the end of the Soviet regime. He was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1983, which is given annually to a person who has “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He was not happy with how life progressed in post-Soviet Russia, however. He believed that politically speaking Russia needed to become a republic with a powerful presidential office and strong local government institutions, which explains both his curious support for Vladimir Putin and his belief that Russia had to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

Besides his books, Solzhenitsyn is best known for his 1978 Harvard University commencement address which was later published under the title A World Split Apart. In it this great opponent of Soviet communism emerged also as a critic of the direction of the politics and culture of the West, which caused Western liberals to abandon him. In the address, Solzhenitsyn—who emphasized that his comments should be interpreted as coming “not from an adversary but from a friend”—called the West out for its consumerism, excessive legalism (e.g., the law had become too complicated for the average person to understand, the necessity of voluntary self-restraint without legal coercion was being ignored, and evil did not seem to be as easily resisted as it had formerly been), excessive stress on rights and imperviousness to obligations, “destructive and irresponsible freedom,” widespread media bias, and embrace of an amoral conception of politics.

He identified a Renaissance “rationalistic humanism” as the root cause since it separated man from any transcendent standard. The West, he said, had rejected “the moral heritage of Christian centuries.” The fundamental cause of the agonies of the Communist East and the liberal West were the same: the rejection of God. Once humanism discarded its Christian foundations, he said, it could not withstand the temptation to embrace ever more extreme leftist ideologies: liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism to communism. It is clear that Solzhenitsyn’s assessment is as valid today as it was forty years ago.

The publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953) made a major contribution to the post-World War II conservative awakening. It talked about major British and American conservative thinkers, writers, and statesmen, and explained—at a time when there was considerable confusion about what conservatism meant—the central principles of conservatism. Kirk was known as a latter-day disciple of Edmund Burke and embraced what has come to be called traditionalist conservatism, which is well captured by his delineation of the “six canons of conservatism.”

The first of these canons is the belief in a transcendent order, which can be found in Revelation, the principles of natural law, or, even, sound traditions. This would mean that political problems are, at bottom, moral and religious problems. The second canon is regard for what he called the variety and mystery of traditional life, as opposed to the leveling uniformity of radical perspectives. The third, related to the second, is that civilized society requires “orders and classes”—that is, natural differences and distinctions need to be recognized. In other words, egalitarianism contravenes the nature of things. The fourth is that property and liberty are closely linked. Political liberty will be stifled if the right to private property is suppressed. The fifth canon is that custom, convention, and prescription (i.e., a presumption in favor of long-standing institutions and customs) must be sustained. This is in opposition to those who would seek to reshape social life according to abstract notions and schemes. The sixth canon is that change and innovation are not the same thing. All things change, but the change must occur within the context of respecting the perennial things. Innovation or reckless change is the path not to progress, but destruction. Further, prudence is necessary to approach change sensibly.

Following Burke, Kirk also was known for emphasizing the notion of the moral imagination, which—as Kirk protégé W. Wesley McDonald defined it—involves “man’s intuitive power to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of the seeming chaos of experience.”

Kirk was that rare unaffiliated scholar, having left academia after only a few years in a faculty position in the 1950s because of what he saw as the evisceration of the liberal arts and other serious academic concerns, though he did accept several visiting professorships later in his career at places like Hillsdale College. His influence on American conservatism was seen not only in his own scholarship, but also in his role in founding National Review magazine and the journal Modern Age. He was also the first editor of Modern Age, which has long been published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). For decades, the ISI, on which Kirk had a profound influence, made the case for the conservative tradition on American campuses. Kirk’s other main books were: The Roots of American Order—an incomparable work that explains how America grew out of a Western cultural tradition symbolized by Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London; Enemies of the Permanent Things; Eliot and His Age—focusing on the great British-American literary figure and essayist T.S. Eliot; Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning—his main work on education, which he wrote about frequently; his autobiographical Sword of the Imagination; and several novels and short stories. He was known especially for his ghost stories.

A convert to Catholicism, Kirk’s close friends included the eminent Catholic constitutional lawyer, William Bentley Ball, and syndicated columnist and presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan. When Buchanan began his primary challenge to unseat George H.W. Bush in 1992, Kirk ran the Michigan campaign. My two books evaluating American liberalism and conservatism in light of Catholic social teaching led me to conclude that the traditionalist conservatism Kirk represents is probably the closest to Catholic social teaching of the leading American ideological perspectives. Kirk was an unabashed opponent of libertarianism and was also uneasy with another school of post-War conservatism, fusionism, which tried to meld together conservative and libertarian thought. Later in life, Kirk was also critical of what he saw as the foreign policy interventionism of some Republican leaders routinely justified by neoconservative commentators who—as former Democrats—seemed to follow the problematic internationalism of major Democratic presidents.

College students tend to lack knowledge of twentieth-century history, even though most of contemporary culture and politics are deeply and profoundly shaped by it. These students, or anyone seeking wisdom from an age that gave us much ignorance along with its inevitable disastrous consequences, would do well to start with thinkers such as these two intellectual giants.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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